It’s #notGDC week! #notGDC is a free online game development conference that runs alongside GDC. This year, I decided to put together a talk on a subject that’s pretty much constantly on my mind, but often flies under the radar–narrative sequencing.
“We’ve put an explosive charge in your head. Does that sound familiar?”
We open on a close-up of Ethan Hunt, our once-intrepid hero. We have no idea where he is, but he’s bloodied, incapacitated, and apparently, Philip Seymour Hoffman has put a bomb in his head.
“I’m going to count to ten,” says Hoffman as he draws a gun. “You’re going to tell me where the Rabbit’s Foot is, or she dies.”
Okay, skipping over the fact that he’s threatening to fridge one of Mission Impossible III’s only women, from a narrative standpoint it’s a fantastic place to start a story. Just off like a rocket from the very first shot.
Immediately, though, the story runs into a problem: action and emotion must escalate. If this is this starting point, the narrative is going to need a ton of vertical room to go absolutely bonkers. If we start with explosive head-charges and only 10 seconds to save the world, we better have fist-fights on the moon before the end of act 1, and punch God in the face by act 3.
But that’s not what happens. Instead, we get a brief glimpse of our hero’s dire future, and then we drop back to the very beginning of this sordid affair. We’ll revisit this scene, but not until roughly 2/3 of the way through the film.
Super Metroid also starts with a countdown. Moments into the game, the space station you’re on is decimated by your arch-nemesis, leaving you with just 60 seconds to escape as everything explodes around you. You manage to land on the surface of a nearby planet, and since drama necessitates escalation, you’d expect to find that this planet, too, is exploding.
Instead, you…land. Safely. You exit your spaceship onto a dreary landscape without any clear objectives and no cool powers. There’s some local wildlife, but they scatter the moment they sense you. There are literally zero explosions in sight.
What went wrong? Things were off to such a promising start, and now, here we are. Mission Impossible III dumps us at a house party. Super Metroid strands us on the planet Zebes. Where did the action go?
Well, it sure as hell didn’t go here:
Freytag’s pyramid, or the “dramatic arc”, is what a lot of us were taught in school as the ultimate story structure. There are a lot of variations that fuss with the amount of steps, but most of the time it boils down to this: we introduce something (exposition), we complicate it (rising action), and then we resolve it (climax).
If you’re a game designer, you can already cite a thousand examples of this, especially when it comes to introducing new game mechanics. It’s standard practice to show the player a new mechanic at a distance, giving them a chance to to familiarize themselves with it. Then, you start exploring and complicating it, until you hit a point where you’re ready to ramp everything up and have the player prove their understanding in a series of final tests. Once they’ve mastered it, you’re done. You move on to the next mechanic, potentially keeping the old mechanic in your back pocket for some extra complication later on.
It’s an arc that’s clear, concise, and horrifically flawed. Because if there’s one thing the dramatic arc is missing, it’s some goddamn drama. Freytag’s pyramid is descriptive, not prescriptive, and it’s describing ancient Greek dramas and books that, if they were written today, would probably lose you before the end of the second paragraph.
The problem is exposition. Before you can get to the interesting stuff, you need to establish some basic concepts, context, tutorials, stuff that can’t or won’t be exciting. And obviously you need to front-load it or the rest of your narrative isn’t going to make sense. But what motivation does your audience have to sit through exposition in the first place? It might be safe to assume that the action is eventually going to rise, but to what heights? And when they get there, will they still care? Why would they bother with unrisen action in a world where risen action exists?
This is where the heartbeat comes in.
The narrative heartbeat is a structure that should be simmering in the back of your mind through every step of design. Even when you’re not thinking about it, it should be guiding every interaction, every line of dialogue, every animation.
It looks something like this:
Let’s call this the PSHMIT structure, or “Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission Impossible III”. Or, if you want something more descriptive: primer/payload/payoff. It’s one of the most popular and versatile narrative structures you’ll encounter in modern media, so ubiquitous that it’s become part of our narrative DNA. It works because it adds something Freytag’s structure lacked, and something that I had a hard time naming. A hook? A promise? A forecast? For now, I’m going to settle for “primer”, if only for the alliteration.
The technique in Mission Impossible III is called “in medias res,” or “into the middle of things.” It dumps you in the middle of the narrative, as though you literally just cut off the first 2/3 of the film reel. Often, “in medias res” means a chronological jump is just around the corner—once we’re done priming the narrative, we’ll drop into a lengthy flashback sequence that’ll slowly wind its way back to this point in time.
What are the benefits of this? First of all, we’re not starting from square one. No long establishing shots, no expository dialog, no dull or invasive tutorials. We giving the audience exactly what they want from the very first frame: action, emotion, intrigue, stakes. We give them a taste of exactly what kind of narrative this is going to be. And in that moment, we make a promise: we’ll get back to these highs at a later point in time. In the meantime, join us at this house party so we can explains who all the characters are.
But there are a lot of other ways to prime a narrative. Super Metroid gives us a thrilling escape sequence. Games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Assassin’s Creed and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided give the player a full suite of high-level abilities to make them feel utterly godlike for the first few minutes before they’re all stripped away, leaving it as an emotional promise (TV Tropes calls this “A Taste of Power”; Giant Bomb outdoes that handily by referring to it as the “abilitease”). Movies and TV shows routinely use “cold opens”, initial scenes that tell their own little story that may or may not have anything to do with the rest of the narrative. Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with Indiana Jones stealing an idol and making a daring escape from a deadly tomb. It’s essentially irrelevant to the plot, but it’s hard to imagine the movie starting with the expository (but load-bearing) scene that immediately follows it: a dry university lecture.
Once you have an audience that’s full of anticipation, eager to get back to that emotional high, you can deliver your expositive payload. They’re invested, and if we do our job right, that investment will pay off later in the narrative, at a point when we’ve started to reach those same emotional highs, but not so late in the narrative that we’ve robbed ourselves of the chance to overdeliver. Audiences need their time and anticipation to pay off beyond what we already gave them—action must rise, after all—so we’ll soar past that moment and up to new heights, all the way until we hit the narrative climax.
Just like Freytag’s pyramid, this pattern doesn’t only apply to the work as a whole. The narrative heartbeat is something that infinitely iterates on itself. It’s a fractal that can go both as small and as large as your narrative can handle.
The easiest way to explain this is through literature. In writing, this heartbeat is sometimes referred to as “narrative sequencing”. It’s a study of information structure, starting with the overall arc of the work, but then drilling down until not even a single word is safe from scrutiny.
It starts with the big picture: how do you start a chapter so that the reader is encouraged to keep reading? How do you end it so that they’ll want to move onto the next?
Then you look a little closer, at the paragraphs and sentences. Does each sentence make the reader want to read the next? Could we swap some information around so that the structure is a little more clear, or a little more exciting?
Finally, we reach the individual words. If we zoom all the way to the individuals atoms of the narrative, we’ll still find that heartbeat ticking away. Roy Peter Clark points to a fantastic example of this from Shakespeare, in the phrase “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”
The subject of the sentence–“The Queen”–appears immediately. Any sentence with such a beginning carries important news.
The least significant element in the sentence “my lord” appears in the middle, the position of least emphasis.
The slight delay between subject and verb holds a nanosecond of suspense.
The most important phrase, “is dead,” appears at the end, the point of greatest emphasis.
Even if you aren’t paying attention to it, the heartbeat so innate and guttural that subverting it immediately registers as a joke. In the titles for A Series of Unfortunate Events, there’s this line:
This show will wreck your evening, your whole life, and your day.
Never mind that the joke’s operating on at least three different levels—the reason this immediately reads as comical is because it sticks the strongest language in the middle, exactly where you’d want to dump the least interesting information. Any other order would be absurd, but it’s the heartbeat that makes it funny.
Things that feel like totally utilitarian design are still wrapped in narrative. You can’t escape the heartbeat. You can feel when it’s there, notice immediately when it isn’t, and read when it’s wrong. It’s everywhere, and affects everything in its wake.
The heartbeat is an animation principle. You can move an object from point A to point B, but translating something at a linear speed along a linear path is aggressively bland. Instead, we build anticipation, we ease our animation speed and squash and stretch at the extremes. We don’t just reach our destination, we overshoot it before coming to a rest.
The heartbeat is hiding in your UI. A menu could just pop into existence, and vanish when a selection has been made, but how much better would it feel to spend just a few frames transitioning in and gave the player some satisfying visual or aural feedback when they take action? Prime the menu. Deliver the payload. Have it pay off. This doesn’t just have to apply to entire UI panels—hell, Persona 5 follows this pattern for every single state change, even for just moving from one selection to the next. You might not want your narrative to be so energetic, but that should be a design choice, not just an omission.
Your audio design has a heartbeat, too. Gunfire happens in the same three steps: muzzle blast, projectile travel, impact. You don’t have a giant muzzle blast and tiny impact, and you don’t emphasize the travel. Primer, payload, payoff.
You jumps physics and collisions have a heartbeat—force, travel, impact.
The heartbeat is one of those things that, the moment you start to notice it, becomes impossible to ignore. It’s the reason you’d start an article with a description of the intro to Mission Impossible III instead of Freytag’s pyramid. Because Freytag’s pyramid is dull as hell.
This is just a starting point. From here you can go as big or as small as you want. Chase rabbit trails, find new places the structure applies and use it to breath life into every corner of your design. Plot out how heartbeats interact with the beats around them. Skip beats, or let them fall flat, and figure out how you can use that to your advantage. Consider how multiple layers interact with each other like interfering waves, building on each other or canceling each other out depending on their ebbs and flows.
Sometimes, the heartbeat will be intentional. Other times, it’ll just be intuitive. It’ll be that unnamed spark of life, or polish, or tiny kinetic kick. Learn to feel for it, and it’ll quickly become second nature.
(Before long, it’ll be in your dreams. You’ll start to think about the narrative of pouring cream into your coffee. That initial splash of excitement, the boring pour, and the brilliant pattern that emerges on the surface when you stop. It’s everywhere, everywhere.
Then you’ll ask The Question: what about my code? Does a static class have an emotional arc? Does math have a heartbeat?
And that’s how the robots win.)